Gang Experts Criticize L.A. City's Anti-Gang Efforts

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Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa likes to say the city's crime rate is at historic lows. But gang crime continues to plague neighborhoods in South and East L.A., and in parts of the Northern San Fernando Valley. That makes it dangerous to walk some streets even during the day. KPCC's Frank Stoltze listened in on a discussion of the problem sponsored by the Pat Brown Institute at Cal State L.A.

Frank Stoltze: The city's approach to tackling gang violence has frustrated Tony Cardenas for a long time. The city councilman and chair of the council's Ad Hoc Committee on Gang Violence and Youth Development says that while the LAPD receives $2 billion a year, gang intervention programs get about $24 million.

In an address at the Pat Brown Institute, Cardenas said it's hard to develop consistent and effective programs when governments don't front the money for them.

Tony Cardenas (addressing audience): The policy makers need to make a commitment to fund these programs that work, and to hold them accountable to make sure that they continue to fund them, and make it institutional, just like every community has made it institutional to have a budget for a police department.

Stoltze: Eight years ago, as a state assemblyman, Cardenas co-wrote a law that mandated more state funding for juvenile justice prevention. The state budget crisis has depleted most of that money. The need for it persists, says gang intervention specialist Aquil Basheer.

Aquil Basheer (addressing audience): We need therapy. Okay? We've got a level of dysfunctionality like I've never seen. This is not "Leave It to Beaver" where we've got the white picket fence and the station wagon in the yard and the two story house.

Stoltze: Cardenas and Basheer spoke at the Pat Brown Institute's recent conference on gang intervention and prevention. Activist Alex Sanchez also addressed the conference on an issue that's sparked disagreement among Southland law enforcement officials.

Alex Sanchez (addressing audience): Many gang interventionists are not addressing the issue of race relations in the area of South Central.

Stoltze: Sanchez runs the group Homies Unidos. He works with at-risk kids in the heavily immigrant neighborhoods just west of Downtown. He's worried that more of those kids may perpetrate – or fall victim to – racial-motivated violence.

Sanchez (addressing audience): Now, that's not the majority. The majority is between gangs – one so happens to be African American, one so happens to be Latino – but it is happening, and we have not seen many Latino leadership come up and talk about that issue.

Stoltze: LAPD Officer Larry Covington runs the Rampart Division's Police Activities League. The program relies on recreational activities to build bonds between cops and kids. He wonders where parents fit into the scenario.

Officer Larry Covington (addressing audience): What are they doing? You know? We can have intervention, prevention, but in actuality we really only have that child for a certain percentage of time. They have 'em 90% of the time. We do need to hold them accountable.

Belinda Walker (addressing audience): I have trouble with demonizing the parents of our youth.

Stoltze: Belinda Walker runs a program called Girls and Gangs.

Walker (addressing audience): The families need help just as much as the kids do. They need to develop new attitudes, new communication skills. They have been, in many cases, just as traumatized, just as abused; this is a multigenerational issue. They came from poor schools, they have no jobs in their neighborhood.

Stoltze: Councilman Cardenas agreed that families need more help, and that some parents need training. He also knows from experience that poverty or a lack of education do not, by themselves, keep people from becoming great parents.

Cardenas (addressing audience): An undeducated pair of people, with a first- and second-grade education – Andres and Maria Cardenas – came to this country with a first- and second-grade education and managed to raise 11 kids in Pacoima and none of us (sound of applause), none of us ever ended up in the back seat of a police car.

Stoltze: One study by Wellesley College Economist Kristen Butcher earlier this year found that immigrants are less likely than the average U.S. native to break the law. Butcher suggested a number of reasons for lower crime rates among immigrants: The law bars many criminals from legally entering the country; immigrants often face deportation if they commit a crime; and most people come to the United States to work. Her study also indicated that gang membership increases in the second and third generations.